"I sometimes doubt my faith because I hear people talk about all of the amazing experiences they have with God speaking to them, or how they feel the Holy Spirit during worship, and stuff like that. I just don't feel like I have that, and it makes me wonder sometimes if there is something wrong with me or if, I dunno, maybe they are faking it."
Another student chimed in, "I know right. When people say stuff like, 'I was praying and I heard God say something' I am just like, 'I pray, but I don't hear anything. What am I doing wrong?'"
A third student said, "I wonder sometimes, you know, if it is really God that people are feeling or if it is just them getting into the music. I mean, I get goosebumps sometimes too, but I don't think that means it is God or something."
Still another added, "And when people like pastors and stuff say that we 'just need to pray harder and ask God to show us his will for our lives', I just get confused. I don't know. It just seems like I can't tell what is God and what isn't."
This is just a small sampling of how it went. Several other students expressed similar concerns. It practically dominated the discussion in every class. I was deeply grieved. Not because I was shocked or surprised by what they were saying, but because it was entirely predictable. I have felt the same way on many occasions.
I don't know how many times I have heard people downplay the need for doctrine and apologetics by saying things like, "What people really need is not a theology or evidence, but an experience. No one can take an experience away from you, and no argument can override what you have actually experienced." Now, please don't misunderstand what I am about to say, I believe that the Holy Spirit indwells every regenerate follower of Jesus. I believe that there is a first-hand, personal, experiential component to knowing and walking with God. So don't hear me say what I am not saying. I am not trying to de-supernaturalize or de-personalize Christianity (though some will no doubt accuse me of doing precisely that). At the same time, I think there has been a movement within evangelical Christianity, especially over the past 30 years, to focus so heavily on the personal, relational element that it has almost become a new branch of Christianity--one where subjective experience trumps both revelation and evidence. You might ask, "Ok, so what's wrong with that?" Simply put: conclusions drawn from subjective, personal experiences are notoriously unreliable. And while It is true that no one can take an experience away from you, an experience does not necessarily make a particular claim, concerning the implications of that experience, true. Such a claim needs to be undergirded by revelation and evidence. All types of religious and irreligious people have profound experiences that they believe confirm their particular worldview. They might all be wrong, but they can't all be right (because they make directly contradictory claims), which means that at least some of them are mistaken. Why think that our experiences are trustworthy? "Isn't it convenient," the skeptic will say, "that everyone's experiences confirm the particular religion that they belong to?" We need something objective to ground our claims about ultimate reality. We need to know the what (doctrine) and why (apologetics) behind them.
Another problem, which speaks more directly to the concerns my students raised, is that making Christianity all about subjective, personal experiences has the unintended side-effect of alienating people who are not regularly (or maybe ever) having those types of experiences. Most churches do this by example more than exhortation (though there are some that explicitly teach it). And to be fair, I genuinely believe that their intentions are good. They want their people to experience a deeper walk with God. Unfortunately, without intending to, they are raising an army of skeptics. How? Suppose someone grows up in a church culture where the only evidence offered for the truth of Christianity is subjective, personal experience. I understand that some people might say, "That would be an incredibly powerful testimony!" I agree, but it can't stand alone. It would be like chopping two of the legs off of a three legged stool (the other legs being revelation and evidence). It would be a very unstable situation. Why? Because if that same person feels like they aren't having the same sort of experiences, then they will conclude that A) Something is wrong with them (which leads to another unhealthy, downward spiral), or B) Christianity is false, and that everyone else is just brainwashed. If you have spent any amount of time talking to people who have walked away from the Church, that probably sounds eerily familiar. I would argue that when we give people the impression that Christianity stands or falls based entirely upon one's subjective, personal experiences, we are systematically raising an army of skeptics. Not because personal experiences aren't real or important. They are. But they cannot stand alone.